"The sky is falling, the sky is falling!"
This is the reaction of some Federer fans (but not all) after he put together two unmotivated performances against rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament. Roger lost 62 61 to Novak and a day later lost 61 75 to Nadal. Now, if this were any tournament that actually counted towards something, I would be a little worried with Roger's performance. However, this was an EXHIBITION tournament. For Roger, it is basically a glorified practice session. He gets to gauge the play of his opponents, while trying out some new shots and getting the feel for the ball and the atmosphere in a regular match again.
In Roger's first match against Djokovic, he was obliterated. Some saw this as a worrying sign. Me? Not so much. Novak had already shaken off his rust in a good three-set match with Gael Monfils the day before, and was concentrated and sharp as if he was playing in a Grand Slam final. Roger, on the other hand, had not played a real match in over a month, and was clearly not motivated to give it his all, and on top of that the month off gave him some rust and he could not do much. Hardly worrisome as far as I'm concerned. In the second match against Nadal, it was much of the same, and Rafa took the first set 6-1. Then Roger played a little more competitively but still lost the second set 7-5. Again, not that worrying because to Roger, these exhibition matches are just like practice sessions.
It's very important to note that these pre-season exhibition matches do not indicate a player's performance in the Australian Open at all. In 2007, Andy Roddick upset Federer in Kooyong, another exhibition tournament. This shocking revelation had much of the media wondering whether the reign of Roger Federer at the top was soon coming to an end. Then, Roger won the Australian Open. Even more than that, he emphatically obliterated Andy Roddick 64 60 62 in the semifinals, in a match which everybody was expecting to be a little closer considering the result in the exhibition a few weeks before. But it just goes to show that these exhibition tournaments really mean nothing, and I mean NOTHING. So Federer fans, and tennis fans in general who are worried about Federer's chances in the Australian Open in a few weeks, I have some advice. Calm down, take a deep breath, and think clearly.
There is one thing about Roger Federer that will always be constant, and that is his ability to bring his best for the Grand Slams. No matter his form in the events prior, he always shows up at the biggest events of the year. Look at the French Open last year, where he had zero momentum beforehand, suffering bad losses to Melzer and Gasquet. Then look at the tournaments prior to the US Open - Montreal and Cincinnati. Roger played terrible in those two matches in which he lost to Tsonga and Berdych, but then what did he do in New York? Oh yeah, played some of his best tennis and held match points against the best player in the world, Djokovic. So, what I'm trying to say is, do not look at these results in exhibitions for more than what they are, and that is practice events. When the real tennis starts, Federer will look much better and will resemble the great Maestro that we all came to love throughout his career.
It is a given that Djokovic (and even Nadal to a lesser extent) try much harder for these exhibition matches than Roger does. Especially with Novak, he wants to be in top gear to find the form that had been lacking at the end of 2011. Also, Novak is not playing in Doha so this Abu Dhabi exhibition is the ONLY preparation he will get before the Australian Open, so of course he is going to try his very best and prepare to the best of his ability. But for Federer, his preparation is in Doha, where the real competition begins. I am sure Fed will play some great tennis in Qatar and will put all these suspicions of bad form to rest. Heck, even if Roger doesn't win in Doha or doesn't even make the final, it doesn't mean much. Right now in Roger's career, all that matters is the Slams, and now this year an Olympic gold. He uses the events in between Slams to gauge his form and work out the kinks in his game. When he gets to the Slams, he catches fire and surprises everybody by playing some killer tennis.
So as I wrap this article up, let me conclude by saying that Roger's play in Abu Dhabi is in no way indicative of the kind of play we will see in Australia, and that those who are worried should calm down. I am looking forward to Doha and the Australian Open, and if Roger happens to win his 17th major in a month's time, I will laugh at all of you who made such a big deal over such meaningless results in Abu Dhabi.
2012 ATP Tour Season Preview to follow shortly, as well as the Doha preview.
Waiting patiently for tennis to start,